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COLUMBUS, Ohio – Urban Meyer has coached teams to three national championships and two additional undefeated seasons. He’s won 85.1 percent of his games, including 90 percent here at Ohio State. He is as good as there is in his sport.
Yet as Ohio State takes the field Friday for their first practice, Meyer won’t be there. He’s on paid administrative leave, his employment with OSU, and potentially anywhere else in college football, hanging in the balance as an investigation opens into what he knew of and what he did following a 2015 allegation of domestic abuse against an assistant coach.
Zach Smith is the assistant’s name and of all the second chances Meyer doled out to troubled souls ranging from Aaron Hernandez on down, it is Smith, the 33-year-old connected grandson of former Buckeye coach Earle Bruce, who may prove to be the one that does him in.
Of all the questions that circle Meyer and Ohio State right now, the most confounding is simply why a man who despises losing would keep around an accused wife-beater who could cost him everything.
Until violating a protective order from his ex-wife late last month, Smith was the wide receivers coach for OSU. His relationship with Meyer, in essence, dates back even further.
In 1986, Bruce gave Meyer his first big break in coaching by hiring him as a graduate assistant at Ohio State. For two years Meyer not only learned to coach but developed a powerful relationship with Bruce. He met Smith when Smith was just a kid and eventually Smith was a walk-on wide receiver for Meyer at Bowling Green.
Smith joined Meyer at the University of Florida, where he was a grad assistant and quality control coach. It was there, though, that Smith ran into his first wave of public trouble.
In 2009, at the age of 24, he was charged with felony assault for abusing his then-pregnant wife, Courtney. She later dropped the charges, in part, she said, because Earle Bruce told her it would cost Zach his career. Meyer decided to keep Smith on staff and even eventually promote him.
It’s almost unfathomable that any coach, or boss in any line of work, would be so forgiving of what is essentially an intern.
“It was a very young couple, and I saw a very talented coach and we moved forward,” Meyer said.
Meyer left Florida in 2010. After a year off, he took over at Ohio State. A year after that, he took another chance. Rather than surround himself with clean records, he hired Smith to his Buckeyes staff.
For Smith, it was a dream come true. He’d grown up in the bucolic nearby suburb of Dublin, Ohio and thanks to his grandfather he all but bled scarlet and gray.
“It’s a fortunate situation for anyone,” Smith told ESPN.com in 2012. “It’s a situation that was never even really a possibility of thought until it happened. Too unreal to be real.”
What also appears real is that Smith never changed his ways. His marriage with Courtney produced two children and repeated interactions with law enforcement. That included the night in 2015 that Courtney alleged Zach strangled her and threw her against a wall as their then-5-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter clung to her legs.
She reported that, including photos of her injuries to authorities as well as Urban Meyer’s wife Shelley, among others. Shelley Meyer expressed concern, continually reached out in support and declared of Zach, “he scares me.”
Yet he remained on the Buckeyes’ staff. Urban Meyer said last week he knew nothing of the 2015 incident. “I was never told about anything … never had a conversation about it,” Meyer said.
Text messages between Courtney and Shelley first reported by Brett McMurphy this week cast doubt on Urban’s story though.
Whether Meyer knew about the allegation or not, Smith continued to be employed. Meyer was doubling down, essentially gambling with his career that Smith would not only stop assaulting Courtney, let alone actually kill her, but that the earlier incidents wouldn’t become public and make it look like Meyer was covering up for an abuser.
Aiding Zach Smith in that was the couple’s unusual divorce case. In a Dec. 18, 2015 affidavit, Courtney Smith swore that “as our marriage became more tumultuous, Zach has made threats toward me and has become physically violent …”
In most cases, that document would have been public record, available for any citizen, Ohio State official or member of the media to discover. Had that allegation, let alone other details of a messy and contentious divorce, come out then, perhaps Smith would have been let go. It certainly would have ended any possible claim that Urban Meyer was unaware of the situation.
Instead it secretly sat in a Delaware County courthouse, under seal thanks to a court ruling. Smith had asked for the divorce to be sealed, and thus hidden, because “if published, [it] may, negatively affect Defendant’s occupation.” He knew his job was on the line. The court granted the motion citing a rarely used 1981 Ohio Supreme Court decision that allows for divorce cases to occasionally remain private under “unusual and exceptional circumstances.”
“It is something that isn’t granted often but isn’t completely out of the ordinary,” said Ron Petroff, a Columbus-based family law attorney who was not involved in the case. “It was good lawyering to protect the client.”
What it also did was keep Smith’s actions further out of the public eye.
It didn’t end the confrontations between the couple though. Over the ensuing years there were allegations of additional physical assaults, stalking and threats against Courtney and her friends. Another time, Courtney reported to police that neighbors saw Zach peering through the windows of her home. Law enforcement was engaged at least nine times but charges were either never filed, dropped or fell apart.
Finally, in late July, Smith was charged with criminal trespassing. Meyer, at last, fired him.
“It was in the best interest of our team,” Meyer said.
For Urban Meyer, it may have been too little, too late. The firing dredged up the 2009 arrest and then soon the Wednesday blockbuster concerning the 2015 allegations. Within hours, Meyer was placed on administrative leave and the university promised an investigation into the allegations.
Even the divorce was finally unsealed this week, showing an at times terrified Courtney who repeatedly begged the court to control her ex-husband.
“Defendant will attempt to enter the residence, which he had threatened to do, and will harass me and potentially cause bodily harm to me worried about,” she warned in one affidavit.
Why Meyer chose to be so loyal to an assistant coach is unknown, but it’s a point of endless speculation here in Columbus. The connection to Earle Bruce, who passed away in April, is an obvious one. Even then, such loyalty was foolish and reckless. A position on the Buckeyes’ staff is coveted. Meyer could have picked from thousands of other talented coaches who haven’t been repeatedly accused of beating and stalking women.
Instead he stuck with Smith, seeing a reclamation project where there was only trouble brewing. He could have dropped him in 2009. He could have not promoted him at UF. He could have not hired him at Ohio State in the first place, let alone kept him around when further allegations reached, at the very least, his wife and the wives of other staffers, if not himself.
Every day Meyer kept Smith employed he was putting his own legendary career and reputation at risk, a time bomb of his own making ticking away.
Finally, this week, it all blew up.
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